Policy: Labor

Union turmoil could cost Boeing workers their jobs

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Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Analysis,Card Check,Boeing,Seattle

There is nothing particularly unusual about a local union leader telling members to reject management's latest offer. What's unusual is the union's national leadership intervening and telling those members to ignore their local leader and take the contract.

That is the latest twist in a running battle between airplane maker Boeing and the Seattle branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The stakes are whether company builds its new 777X fleet in Washington state.

The struggle raises a thorny question: Who is really representing the workers’ best interests here — the national union or the local one? And what exactly does the struggle say about how democratic unions really are?

The turmoil at Boeing became national news Nov. 13 when IAM District 751’s 32,000 members voted down a proposed eight-year contract extension by a 2-to-1 margin. The deal included modest raises, a $10,000-per-member signing bonus and would have ensured that the 777X is built in Puget Sound. (Not everyone agrees on the latter point, though.)

The members didn’t like it, particularly objecting to plans to convert their defined benefit pension into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

The rejection was a black eye for District 751 President Tom Wroblewski, who negotiated the deal and appeared to give it his endorsement in a vaguely worded Nov. 5 statement. (He has since claimed he was neutral all along.)

Boeing has said that if it cannot reach terms, it will just build the 777X elsewhere. It has been publicly entertaining offers from numerous states, including Utah, Kansas, the Carolinas and Texas.

The company then made a new contract offer, but this time Wroblewski refused to even allow a vote on it. He said it was little different from the one already rejected.

On Thursday, IAM President Tom Buffenbarger overruled him and forced a Jan. 3 vote. Wroblewski is urging members to reject it.

Many IAM members think Boeing is bluffing. They argue that the work they do is, well, rocket science, and the company won’t be able to find qualified workers elsewhere.

Wroblewski said, “Washington state will remain the best place for Boeing to build the 777X. Every objective analysis of the business case shows that to be true.”

IAM member Dan Erskine told Seattle’s local NBC affiliate this was a PR campaign by Boeing to squeeze the union. “I don’t think they’re moving anywhere,” he said.

Buffenbarger, though, seems convinced that Boeing is not bluffing: “Your union … must take this threat seriously,” he said Friday.

Well, they cannot both be right. So who is representing the workers interests here? The local leaders who refused to have a vote, or the national ones who are forcing a vote while many members are still on vacation?

In a further irony, Buffenbarger has promised the Jan. 3 vote will be a “secret ballot process” to ensure that it is "free from any coercive or disruptive circumstances." That assurance runs directly contrary to Big Labor's support for card check, which would eliminate the secret ballot.

This is the same union where, as the Wall Street Journal recently noted, "[n]o candidate opposing incumbent (national) leaders and their allies has won enough endorsements to get on the ballot since 1961."

In 2011, there was a similar struggle over Boeing's decision to build a plant in right-to-work South Carolina. It got a lot of attention at the time -- the federal government got involved -- only to fizzle out when Boeing and IAM belatedly reached a deal.

Is this just a replay of that? That’s one possibility. Another is last year's Hostess bankruptcy, in which the baker’s union discovered too late that management wasn’t bluffing after all.

On Jan. 3, everyone involved will be forced to show their cards.

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